The problem with human autonomy

Belief in it is preventing progress, or, in another word, "exodus"

Brendan O’Neill has posted a review of new book, by an author called Mary Harrington, with the title: Feminism against Progress.

O’Neill is predictably very critical of the book, and I agree with many points he makes. Apparently, Harrington wishes a time back pre-industrial revolution. Writes O’Neill:

Harrington’s thesis is that modernity has ‘disembedded’ human beings. The Industrial Revolution ‘disembedded’ us from the home by socialising work. With brutish speed, historically speaking, the economically self-sufficient homestead in which both man and wife worked – in animal husbandry, artisanship, textile-making – was replaced with ‘factories filled with large, dangerous machines’ to which all were expected to traipse to earn a wage. This was especially bad for mothers, says Harrington, who suddenly had to decide what to do with their kids while they were at work.


Harrington is not so crass as to say that everything was great pre-Industrial Revolution or that nothing improved as a result of the Industrial Revolution. But her dread of tech – one of her concluding rallying cries is ‘No more freedom, no more technology’ – means she does peddle the sadly common and ahistorical belief that man existed in a good state of nature until those pesky Satanic mills arrived and messed everything up. Especially for mums.

Harrington apparently has a particular aversion to the contraceptive pill. To which O’Neill says:

Harrington is a technological determinist. The sexual revolution was ‘less a moral change than a technological one’, she says, which strikes me as an extraordinary disavowal of the agency of the women of the 1950s and 1960s who campaigned for greater autonomy. It surely gets things the wrong way around. It wasn’t the Pill that transformed sexual behaviour, as if a mere tablet could shatter centuries of social tradition. Rather, it was the desire among human beings to explore new sexual and social frontiers that created the conditions in which something like the Pill could be conceived of and invented. Harrington’s view of technology as the shaper and reshaper of human relations, from the industrial era to the ‘cyborg’ era, verges at times on depicting people as the witless automatons of what she describes as ‘the machine’.

He’s quite right of course. First came the cultural change, the “campaign for greater autonomy”, then the technological. However, that does not mean that “exploring new sexual and social frontiers that created the conditions in which something like the Pill could be conceived of and invented” is a good thing. Indeed, it might be said that this is precisely the thing that led to exactly the kind of excesses and reality-denying policies around sex and gender that O’Neill and others on that same platform ( rightly never tire of condemning.

O’Neill claims that “cultural yearning for greater autonomy” was “positive”, because it enabled us to “venture further into the world”.

Was it really that? O’Neill mentions the Renaissance, when “we got ships capable of traversing once terrifying, impassable oceans, whereupon entire new worlds were discovered.” The Renaissance being the first “break with God”, so to speak (my words, not his), since Christianity achieved cultural hegemony in the Occident. But that is far from clear. In fact, there is a school of thought claiming with some merit that this drive into the world stems from Christianity itself – in order to evangelise it. This is what drove Columbus, not some idea of autonomy.

Here’s what Ray Sutton writes in his book “Paradise Restored“, p. 6-7 (emphases in the original):

Let’s look at a very different field: exploration. Not one historian in a hundred knows what motivated Christopher Columbus to seek a western route to the Indies. Trade? Yes, that was part of the reason. More than this, however, it was unfulfilled prophecy. Before he began his expeditions, Columbus crammed his journals with quotations from Isaiah and other Biblical writers, in which he detailed the numerous prophecies that the
Great Commission to disciple all nations of the world would be successful (see, for example, Isa. 2:2-5; 9:2-7; 11:1-10; 32:15-17; 40:4-11; 42:1-12; 49:1-26; 56:3-8; 60:1-22; 61:1-11; 62:1-12; 65:1-25; 66:1-24). He figured that if the Indies were to be converted, a sea route would be a much more efficient way to bring them the gospel; and he credited his discoveries not to the use of mathematics or maps, but rather to the Holy Spirit, who was bringing to pass what Isaiah had foretold. We must remember that America had been discovered numerous times, by other cultures; yet successful colonization and development took place only in the age of exploration begun by Columbus. Why? Because these explorers were bearers of the gospel, and their
goal was to conquer the world for the kingdom of God. They came expecting that the New World would be Christianized. They were certain of victory, and assumed that any obstacles they met had been placed there for the express purpose of being overcome. They knew that Christians are destined for dominion.

There are also clear indications that it was a specific set of theological convictions, arrived at first by the Calvinists in the Netherlands in the early 1600s, that lit the spark that led to the Industrial Revolution. Here’s Gary North on that subject.

Back to O’Neill’s review. He is right to highlight and criticise the scaremongering around AIDS as a cultural reaction to the sexual revolution. He is however wrong in thinking there were no grounds at all for such a reaction. The deep unease with the societal atomisation that has come in the wake of the sexual revolution, which in turn came in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, needs to be addressed, not dismissed, as O’Neill does.

He decries “the trend for both right and left to be ostensibly anti-capitalist but really anti-modern. You see it, indeed, in capitalism’s own turn against its historic project of remaking the world in its own image.” He calls this depressing and “wants no part in it”. But he does not attempt to analyse the cause of this movement.

O’Neill is a self-proclaimed atheist and Marxist. He also never tires of proclaiming the right of everyone to express their opinions. For that I laud him. However, his own convictions prevent him from seeing what is wrong with the (post-)modern world. Not that it is no longer modern, like he would have it, but that it has not shaken off the basic tenet of modernity, namely that human autonomy is achievable and a good thing to pursue.

If Sutton is right and Christianity led us to “have dominion” over nature (including our own, BTW) and if North is right in that (Calvinist) Christianity created and sustained the Industrial Revolution, we should consider that the “exodus” (which according to Merriam-Webster means “the way out”) out of any enduring bad situation, whether personal or societal, is with God, not without Him.